By Angela Caputo and Jeremy Gorner
Officers Sean Campbell and Steven Sautkus were patrolling their quiet beat on Chicago's Southwest Side in April 2014 when they saw the driver turn without flashing his signal early enough.
They stopped Jonathan Guzman, then 18, ordered him out of his car and cuffed him while they searched his Chevy Malibu. They were so thorough, Guzman alleged, that they used a drill to dismantle the sound system in the trunk. In the end, the officers found only a marijuana cigarette butt, worth $5. They charged Guzman with misdemeanor drug possession, wrote three traffic citations and impounded his Chevy.
It wasn't his first encounter with Campbell or Sautkus, Guzman alleges. The two officers and several colleagues in the quiet Garfield Ridge neighborhood where Guzman lives had stopped him numerous times in recent years, he said, for minor traffic infractions or as he hung out in the community of tidy lawns, squat brick cottages and city workers.
The stops occurred so often that Guzman filed a lawsuit in 2014 alleging ongoing, racially charged harassment by the officers. The case was settled last year for $35,000.
Although the settlement was small compared with multimillion-dollar sums the city sometimes pays, a Tribune investigation found that it nonetheless represents a pernicious, stubborn problem: that of officers whose alleged misconduct, while perhaps minor, leads to legal settlements that eventually cost city taxpayers greatly.
The city since 2009 has settled seven lawsuits against Campbell, a 17-year veteran officer. He ties for second among officers named in the most lawsuits settled by the city during those past six years, the Tribune's analysis of available data shows. His partner during the Guzman arrest, Sautkus, was named in four settled cases.
Both are part of a small group of officers -- just 124 of the city's police force of roughly 12,000 -- who were identified in nearly a third of the misconduct lawsuits settled since 2009, suggesting that officers who engaged in questionable behavior did it over and over. The Tribune's investigation also found that 82 percent of the department's officers were not named in any settlements. Still, the conduct of those 124 officers cost the city $34 million, the Tribune investigation found.
The Tribune also found that while many officers as well as police union officials attribute claims of misconduct to the rough and tumble of working in crime-ridden neighborhoods, complaints against Campbell, Sautkus and their colleagues have often occurred while the group patrolled relatively low-crime areas, focused on quality-of-life issues.
Of the more than 1,100 cases the city settled since 2009, just 5 percent were for more than $1 million. Many of those involved fatal shootings, wrongful prosecutions and the sort of brutality allegations that have drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which recently launched an investigation into the Chicago Police Department's use of force.
The bulk were settled for less serious incidents, including officers allegedly injuring arrestees during traffic stops, making false arrests, uttering racial slurs or other alleged misconduct while officers were off-duty.
Still, those lawsuits cost the city millions of dollars, the Tribune's analysis shows, but underwent little scrutiny. A vast majority, 85 percent, were settled for $100,000 or less, which meant the deals did not require City Council approval. And Chicago officers accused of misconduct are rarely disciplined, data show.
Defense attorney Terry Ekl, a former prosecutor, said the toll isn't just financial. Unchecked alleged misconduct, even when nonfatal, continues to erode the public's confidence in police, particularly in Chicago, he said.
"Police would have more credibility with the public if they would admit they made a mistake," Ekl said. That, he added, would require breaking the code of silence more often -- at the street level and among police brass.
Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi agreed that the department hasn't done enough to root out bad officers.
"This has been an issue for decades and there is no question the department needs to do a better job identifying officers with problematic behavior to hold them accountable and restore trust in the police," Guglielmi said in an emailed statement. He said improving the department's "early intervention system" will be a focus of the newly named Task Force on Police Accountability and the Justice Department investigation.
"Interim Supt. (John) Escalante recognizes that this issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible," he said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office also acknowledged that the city has historically not sufficiently addressed the pattern of alleged abuse among Chicago police.
Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins noted in an email that the Police Department; the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct; and the Law Department are collaborating "on new ways in which all available information, from settlements to complaints to actual findings, can be better used to hold officers with problematic histories accountable."
Neighborhood cops, neighborhood lawsuits
The Tribune's analysis of lawsuits shows that many of the officers named in three or more settled cases ran in small circles, working together on assignments, or moved around the city and partnered with others who were sued frequently as well.
One such group of officers works in the Chicago Lawn district.
Campbell and Sautkus attended Catholic grade schools in different parts of the city's South Side and, public records show, both went to St. Rita of Cascia High School. They both applied for a job with the Chicago Police Department in the late 1990s. Campbell got hired first, in 1998. Sautkus worked as a 911 call dispatcher with the city and joined the Police Department a year after Campbell.
They've patrolled the same areas and bought houses around the same time in a western stretch of the Chicago Lawn district, which includes Garfield Ridge, a neighborhood with one of the largest concentrations of Police Department employees in the city.
Before he teamed up with Sautkus, Campbell was partnered with a friend, Rudolph Garza. Off duty, Garza and Campbell hang out, swimming in Campbell's pool or watching sports together, according to court records. Garza, a Marine Corps veteran who attended public grammar school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, bought a home in Garfield Ridge a few years after Campbell and Sautkus.
The three officers have earned hundreds of awards and commendations from the department for their work. They've also racked up 16 lawsuit settlements since 2009 among them and two other officers who also live in the neighborhood, Christopher Barajas and Lance Handzel. The city paid $1.5 million to settle those cases.
Campbell, Garza and Handzel declined to comment. Sautkus and Barajas did not return calls seeking comment.
While police officials have long attributed the frequency of lawsuits against officers on the tough assignments they work, the lawsuits against Campbell and his co-workers stemmed from traffic stops and on-foot contact for minor crimes in their neighborhood. Campbell made 92 arrests from January 2013 to March 2014. Police Department records, provided by a complainant's attorney, show that a majority were for traffic violations or misdemeanor charges, including cannabis possession or resisting arrest.
In 2015, a father and son were paid $30,000 to settle excessive force allegations that Barajas pulled them over in the alley next to his house and approached their vehicle with his gun unholstered because he feared they were burglars, not relatives of his new neighbor. In court documents, Barajas described the stop as an ordinary field interview. But Darren Osborn, 45, said it was anything but from the moment Barajas saw him.
Osborn said he told the officer he was helping his brother-in-law rehab his new house. But Barajas said in a deposition that he didn't recognize the neighbor's name. "He said, 'I know this neighborhood. I own this block,'" Osborn alleged the officer said.
Osborn said in a lawsuit that Barajas banged him against a car and berated him for a half-hour before a supervisor arrived and told him and his teenage son to leave. Osborn, who said he never had been in trouble with the law, said the experience frightened his son to tears and made both fearful of police.
"I'll be driving along and a squad car will drive up and I'll get all shaky and I'm like, why am I nervous, I didn't do anything," he said.
Another combined $190,000 was paid out in varying amounts in six separate lawsuits that alleged that Campbell, Garza, Sautkus and Barajas used racial slurs and choked or hit men. Among them was Lashaun Duprey, a 19-year-old black man who was riding in the back seat of a car on Nov. 8, 2013, when Campbell and Sautkus stopped the vehicle, according to Duprey's lawsuit.
Duprey alleged in the suit that the officers called the people in the car monkeys and that Sautkus punched him in the face outside of the vehicle. In the arrest report, Sautkus said he saw the teen pick up a "dark object" that the officer thought was a weapon. He said he struck him in the face to stun him so he could arrest him. Duprey was charged with resisting a police officer; the charge was eventually dismissed.
Duprey declined to comment through his attorney, who said he feared retaliation by the officers. In 2015, the city settled the suit for $30,000.
In 2012 the city paid $200,000 to an Arab-American woman who alleged that when Garza and Campbell stopped her for a traffic violation, she was groped and told she looked like a stripper and a terrorist, according to records. The lawsuit alleged that Garza also showed the woman a military tattoo, "talked about his history in the military, and spoke of the military killing her people."
Garza and Campbell denied the allegations, court records show. The woman was charged with drug possession, but the charges were dismissed after a judge ruled that she was stopped without probable cause.
The city paid $530,000 to settle allegations in 2013 that Handzel, Barajas and Campbell repeatedly harassed a biracial teen who had recently moved onto Handzel's block. Handzel allegedly made racial slurs and told the teen that he didn't belong in the neighborhood.
Attorney Torreya Hamilton, who represented Guzman, Osborn and a handful of others who filed lawsuits against the five officers, said the Garfield Ridge officers appeared to operate as if they owned the neighborhood and that the constitutional rights of those they stop don't apply.
"These officers are overzealous in their policing tactics because in their minds, they're protecting the homefront," she said.
No discipline, despite settlements
The Tribune used settlement data from the city's Law Department to identify the more than 1,100 police misconduct lawsuits that were resolved in Chicago's federal court and Cook County Circuit Court over the past six years. In 90 percent of the cases, the names and badge numbers of officers facing allegations in court were identified.
The Tribune compiled that information to determine which officers the city settled claims against most frequently. The data also show that a small number, roughly 1 percent of officers, are named in three or more settlements.
Despite the fact that such a small number of officers have been involved in a disproportionate number of settlements for police misconduct, discipline against the officers has been scant.
City attorneys have a system for tracking how often officers are sued and, if an officer is sued multiple times, they pass that information on to the Chicago Police Department's legal staff. What happens with that information depends on the circumstances of the lawsuits, including whether the suits indicate any wrongdoing, said Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey.
It's up to IPRA or the Police Department to recommend discipline, officials said.
IPRA has said it will not consider an officer's complaint history during the investigation unless the agency has recommended prior discipline for that officer.
A review of dozens of complaints against the five Garfield Ridge officers shows that IPRA often found "inconsistencies" in primary witnesses' statements or could not find additional witnesses, which hampered their investigations.
In contrast, the police officers' statements, and those of their partners and responding officers involved in these alleged incidents, routinely deny witnessing misconduct, according to the reports. Their consistent statements led IPRA investigators to routinely conclude that there was "insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegations."
But Craig Futterman, a law professor and civil rights attorney at the University of Chicago's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, said the fact that the same officers continue to rack up lawsuits reflects a longtime failure by city officials, who have allowed the officers' behavior to go unchecked.
"The old expression, where there's smoke there's fire, that's a truism," Futterman said. "It doesn't mean that there's always going to be fire, but certainly, if you see smoke, that's where you ought to be looking."
None of the complaints against the five officers in recent years resulted in discipline.
That was the conclusion when IPRA probed the complaint behind a lawsuit that alleged that Sautkus, Campbell and a handful of other officers conspired to cover for Garza when he allegedly broke a woman's nose in 2007 while she was handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car.
Ashley Suntken, who was 21 at the time, told an IPRA investigator that she was at a party and intoxicated when Garza, who was there off-duty with Campbell, punched her in the face in a squad car after an argument. According to some witness statements collected by IPRA, Suntken, ejected from the party, had been led to a squad car with no visible injuries.
From the back seat of the squad car, she said, she overheard an officer ask Garza, who had accused her of punching him earlier in the evening, if he wanted "a free shot" at her. Garza then opened the squad car door and punched her three times in the face, she said.
"There was blood everywhere," Suntken said. "I was spitting blood. I was drunk. I was screaming in pain."
Suntken was arrested for battery. She was acquitted of the charges, sued the city and got a $134,000 settlement in 2009.
More than a year later, IPRA closed its inquiry with investigator Theresa Davis concluding that "there is insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegations."
Suntken had reconstructive surgery, and there are few traces of the injuries, but she said it was a long recovery. Her daughters, who were toddlers at the time, said she looked like a monster while she was healing, she said.
Three of the officers in the Garfield Ridge group have faced some discipline, but not for the complaints filed in the past six years.
Campbell was suspended a decade ago after he got into a rollover accident on I-57 and his blood alcohol was 0.235, nearly three times the legal limit, according to a 30-day suspension ruling approved by the Chicago Police Board. Campbell also was charged with DUI and received supervision in Cook County.
Handzel was suspended for a year in 1997 for pulling a gun on a man during a traffic dispute.
Garza was charged with DUI a year ago. His case is still pending, and Chicago police said he has been stripped of his police powers and is on administrative duty.
Teen stopped again
The Guzman family had moved to Garfield Ridge to get their children into a safer neighborhood during their teenage years. Witnessing what the family described as frequent targeting of the eldest son has contributed to their distrust of police.
"I see a cop car, and I get nervous as hell now, no matter who they are," said Jonathan Guzman, now 20.
Prosecutors dropped the drug possession charges against Guzman that were filed after Campbell and Sautkus pulled him over and his car was impounded in April 2014. Guzman abandoned his car then, saying the $2,000 to get it out of the lot was more than it was worth.
Eight months later, Guzman, a landscaper, was driving a new car down a residential block in Garfield Ridge when Campbell and Sautkus pulled him over again -- this time for failing to stop at a stop sign.
The officers searched his 2000 Cadillac and found $3 worth of marijuana in the console. Guzman was ticketed, arrested and his car was once again impounded. For the second time in a year, he forfeited his car to the tow lot because the fees cost more than he'd paid for it.
Guzman hasn't owned a car since because he's afraid they'll take it.
"I want to say it's over, but I know that it's not," said his mother, Jenny Guzman. These days she rarely lets her youngest son, who is 15, go out to play in the neighborhood for fear that he will get targeted.
"I'm afraid because of the cops and because he is a Guzman," she said.
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